Athletes have become targets

January 09, 1994|By Mark Hyman | Mark Hyman,Staff Writer Staff writers Sandra McKee, Jim Henneman, Jerry Bembry and Milton Kent contributed to this article.

Nancy Kerrigan, skating star and Olympic medalist, was fresh from a routine practice at an arena in Detroit. She barely had stepped off the ice when she met an assailant, who struck her right knee with a blunt object, leaving it bruised and swollen.

Larry Stewart was at home in Baltimore County. Burglars, who police believe had targeted the Washington Bullets player, broke in, stabbing him in the thigh and firing a shot through his neck.

On consecutive days last week, Stewart and Kerrigan, linked only by their misfortune, became the latest statistics in a scary escalation of violence against athletes.

Stewart's case may be more complicated. It is not yet clear whether he was harmed because he is an NBA player.

Even so, Kerrigan's and Stewart's cases have a familiar, if frightening, ring, much the same note as was sounded last year when tennis star Monica Seles was stabbed as she sat with her back to the crowd during a break in a match in Germany.

Athletes perform in huge ballparks and arenas. They travel through airports and are as recognizable as any Hollywood movie star. Is there any way to protect them from obsessed fans determined to reach and maybe hurt them?

In the wake of the Seles incident, officials from colleges to major-league teams have tried. They've re-examined their security policies and tweaked their protocols. Despite the tougher measures, officials say, it's impossible to shield athletes from every threat.

"You take all the steps in the world, and still somebody could slip through your security -- it's a fear," said Gary Handleman, vice president of facilities for Centre Management, which oversees security at Bullets and Washington Capitals games at USAir Arena, as well as events at the Baltimore Arena.

Roy Sommerhof, Orioles director of stadium operations, said the baseball team deals with similar concerns at Camden Yards.

"The place is so big, and so many people want to get close to the ballplayers, it's always on your mind," he said.

Players, too, admit that the possibility of an attack crosses their minds.

Cal Ripken knows the threat firsthand. Last year, a fan in Seattle threatened the life of the Orioles shortstop, later calling it a prank. In part for security reasons, Ripken stays in separate hotels in many cities when the Orioles are on the road.

Orioles pitcher Mike Mussina, who has seen the effect of such incidents on Ripken, said: "Up until April of last year, when Monica Seles was stabbed, I never thought much about it. But after [the Kerrigan incident], you think about it a lot more. With more and more people running out on the field at games, you think about what if security acts slowly. You wonder what's going on -- some guy might say he's only trying to shake my hand, but he could have something sharp in his hand."

The same doubts race through the minds of athletes in other pro sports.

"The scary part for hockey players is after the game, when you come out of the building and you're going to the bus and it's really crowded," said Capitals center Dave Poulin. "You come out and there is a mass of humanity, and you literally have to kind of push to get through. It's scary. Someone could pop you very easily and you'd have no idea."

Two members of Maryland's women's basketball team say they don't worry about attacks.

"I have never thought about it [a possible attack from a spectator]. I don't think there's anything to think about," said forward Bonnie Rimkus. "I feel really bad for whatever happened to her [Kerrigan], but I wouldn't think twice about it."

Said Rimkus' teammate Karon Ferguson: "When I first heard what happened to Monica [Seles], I thought, 'This is a freak accident.' Then, when it happened [to Kerrigan] I thought, 'This is a freak accident that happened again.' I would never think anyone would do something like that."

For local teams, protecting their players means more than hiring a guard or investing in a padlock. The issues are complicated because they involve tracking the players wherever they go, from stadium parking lots to the team dressing rooms, even onto team benches or into dugouts. The same is true when the team is on the road. In some cases, such as Stewart's, even protecting them at the workplace isn't enough.

Certain aspects of Orioles' security were improved when the team moved to Camden Yards two years ago, Sommerhof said. That includes a players' parking lot that is fenced and security guards to watch over Ripken and others from the moment they park their cars until they walk into the clubhouse.

After the Seles incident, Sommerhof said, the team increased game security for the players, notably by adding extra police on the field. "We did it very subtly," he said of the plan, which put two people beyond the bases along foul lines and one each in the dugouts.

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